# PLENK2010 – Breadth versus depth – an illusion?

This is a response to Dave Ferguson’s and Stephen Downes’ comment’ on my blog post . Well actually more of a reflection than a response.

I understand Dave’s response. I can see that he is coming from the same place as I am in concerns about balancing depth and breadth in online courses, i.e. the practicalities of knowing how to manage the breadth of information we are exposed to on an open online course and knowing where to focus. This is a common concern. For example in her blog post Linn – talks about trying to avoid being ‘overfed’. Others have talked about feeling overwhelmed as George has noted – in his Moodle forum post (Making sense of (in?) abundance – in the General Discussion Forum). These feelings are very common, so is the depth versus breadth problem an illusion as Stephen claims?

To quote Stephen in full – he writes:

It occurs to me that the depth versus breadth problem is an illusion. One person’s breadth is another person’s depth. It’s an artifact of how we divide the world. If we divide it by discipline – computer science, physics, art – depth looks like one thing. But if you divide it by function – saving lives, educating children, building bridges – depth looks like something very different.

My experience with thinking about depth versus breadth has always been in terms of the ‘overload’ problem discussed above and ‘recognised’ by Dave. This is a real problem so in that sense is not an illusion – it is something experienced by many learners and something that many teachers think about in trying to select a curriculum for their learners – and it has become more of a problem now that we have so much ready information and networks at our finger tips. How do we know where to focus? This ability to filter, select and focus is a critical literacy skill that will be important to develop. This was discussed in the Critical Literacies course and Matthias and I have also discussed it in relation to e-resonance.

But Stephen’s point gives us a different perspective which is also very relevant to the networked world. I think my own experience of looking for depth has been in going deeper into a given discipline – but I can now see that the links/connections that you can make as a result of being part of a large learning network can also enable a depth of knowledge and understanding that might not be achievable through a single discipline.

This reminds me that Etienne Wenger often talks of the value of learning that takes place at the boundaries of communities of practice – i.e. where there is overlap between different communities. Paul Lowe has also made reference to Etienne Wenger in his blog post – The PLE as a roadmap of the landscape of practice. I can see links between these ideas and those related to balancing breadth and depth in learning.

I can also see that in this age of PLEs, PLNs and networked learning it will be important to be able to gain depth of knowledge and understanding both through digging deeper into a given discipline and through being able to exploit the diversity and breadth of our networks. But the question still remains of how best to keep this breadth and depth in balance and avoid losing out on both counts through an inability to manage information overload.

8 thoughts on “# PLENK2010 – Breadth versus depth – an illusion?

  1. Rita September 15, 2010 / 3:03 pm

    Hi Jenny

    I am glad you bring this point up as you are right: what means depth to one person through a high level of communication and access to resources, could mean superficiality to another as the volume of data and information a person has to work through with a limited amount of processing time in the day to do it in means that our attention might wonder and flit from issue to issue without really going into much depth. Quite a few people have discussed this over the past few years. I have exerpted a piece on information abundance in my blog to put some meat on the bone, and bring some depth to the debate. Here is the link.http://www.u-learnspace.info/

  2. Dave Ferguson September 15, 2010 / 3:50 pm

    Somewhere, recently, I quoted a favorite line from Steven Wright: you can’t have everything. Where would you put it?

    One of the challenges, or at least the differences, in a “course” like PLENK is that it’s not really what most people think of as a course. The latter is almost always a Carton of Content, packed by someone else and offered through some kind of cognitive catalog: your college (“Sea Imagery in Beowulf”), the company training department (“The Inventory Management System”), a professional association (“Professional Liability and How to Stay Out of Court”).

    PLENK’s got its own packaging, but a better analogy might be suggested hiking trails in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. Yes, you could take the auto road up Mount Washington. Or you could do the whole presidential chain. Or you might be content with half a day’s wandering centered on Pinkham Notch.

    All of which is to say there’s inevitably stuff you’re going to miss. But like topics in Twitter, say, if some concept or principle or example or tool has enough value, you’ll bump into it again and again.

  3. Carmen Tschofen September 15, 2010 / 4:05 pm

    Hi Jenny,

    Apparently I’ve been contemplating a similar issue but in different terms; rather than contrasting depth and breadth, I’ve been considering how connective (networked) learning works for divergent thinkers, who pull in ideas from many different areas and make unusual connections between fields or disciplines, often in ways that are puzzling to those working “in depth” (convergently, in some cases) in a single area. I think this divergence might be what Stephen is addressing.

    My current thought is that a connective environment provides rich resources for both divergent thinking (and I’d note that it has become common to try and “harness” or stimulate divergent thinking processes for creativity) and for innately divergent thinkers. Divergence in thinking is in part reflected in the development of novel conceptual connections, and this seems to be particularly supported through Stephen’s definition of networks – diverse, open, etc. However, I’ve come to suspect that while conceptual connections may increase through the articulation of divergent thinking in a networked environment, the same articulation may affect (and perhaps ironically limit?) the number of social connections that are made and (finally, back to the theme!) the degree of resonance among network “nodes” in particular. In other words, I wonder if the undervaluing of this mode of thinking — a result or consequence of the “illusion” that Stephen notes– might also affect connectivity and resonance?

    Or, to edge things a little further, if divergent thinking is “creativity”, could this contribute to the “beyond words” aspects of resonance where it does exist?

  4. Matthias Melcher September 15, 2010 / 9:07 pm

    Rita and Dave, thanks for further unpicking the concepts of breadth and depth:
    – Breadth as diversity, or as superficiality (Rita) ?
    – And depth in an exemplary, picked niche, or comprehensiveness and “no stuff to miss” (Dave) in a single discipline ?
    Gradually the picture becomes clearer to me: Information abundance forces us to take leave of the latter meanings of these oppositional terms, and to pick our niches (as Stephen said today in the Elluminate session). And if we pick them from sufficiently diverse sources and connect them, this new kind of breadth does not necessarily mean a loss of depth and quality.

    Carmen: Unless Jenny remembers it differently I would say that we have not thought about the question you are addressing. We did speculate a little about divergent thinking at the reader’s/ resonator’s end, but not about divergent thinking on the author’s side, and not about the articulation of divergent thinking.
    Are you suggesting that convergent thinkers resonate less likely with divergent thinkers?

  5. jennymackness September 16, 2010 / 8:15 am

    Hi Rita, Dave and Carmen – thanks for your comments and for the link Rita – which is interesting reading. It seems that many authors agree that information abundance can be difficult to manage, but there aren’t many ideas for a solution. Perhaps as Dave says, we just have to shrug our shoulders and accept that we will inevitably miss things.

    Carmen – your ideas about divergent and convergent thinking and how they relate to resonance and connectivity are very interesting. They reminded me immediately of Gregorc’s work on learning styles and his Abstract, Random, Concrete and Sequential quadrant. Despite having reservations about the value of pigeonholing people into a particular learning style, I do know that I am much more of a concrete sequential worker/thinker than and abstract random worker/thinker and having read your comments, I wonder if abstract random thinkers manage better with information abundance and networked learning.

    As for whether convergent thinkers can resonate with divergent thinkers and how these types of thinking relate to thinking in depth – these are also very interesting ideas – which I will think about further 🙂 All I can say is that my experience of working with/resonating with Matthias is not based on having the same learning/thinking styles. We are completely different in this. The resonance is – as we have discussed in our paper at the beyond verbal level and remains a riddle 🙂

  6. ctscho September 16, 2010 / 5:01 pm

    Hi Jenny and Matthias,

    Don’t mean to pigeonhole learners (never a productive approach:-), but am working to understand some underlying preferences and developing options in working with info abundance. I don’t think the divergent and convergent approaches mean not being able to relate, or that either is necessarily isolating, or that this is even an entirely appropriate dichotomy. I also find that flexible learners slide between many approaches as necessary. I think I’m just wondering if the onslaught of conceptual connections in divergent expressions might give those oriented toward convergence fewer recognizable or aggregated cues than they may otherwise need or be seeking, and whether those who are more focused expressions of convergence in problem solving might not provide sufficient sustained novelty (which is different than the “first contact” spark you mention) for those looking to feed preferences for divergence—limiting both affective and conceptual resonance in both cases. This is a completely “beyond verbal” (and beyond data, I might add!) speculation, though, so I’m going to go back to mulling over all the good stuff in your paper that I haven’t gotten to yet:)

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